Books: The House on Rectory Lane by Stuart James

I came across the 2017 novel The House on Rectory Lane by British author Stuart James randomly, while browsing through my suggestions on Kindle Unlimited. Since it had an intriguing title, numerous four- and five-star reviews, and was free to read, I decided to give it a shot. I thought I had never read anything by the author before, and I didn’t read the synopsis prior to diving in, which is my usual modus operandi; I like to come into things fresh, so I tend to pick books just by the vibe the title and cover give off, and whether the book is highly rated or not.

As I did a bit of research into the novel after reading it, I discovered a few things, such as the fact that the book had won the International Book Award in Horror Fiction at the American Book Fest, and had tons of praise, calling it “the scariest thriller in years,” and similar sentiments. But I also realized that a few months ago, I had checked out another one of Stuart James’s books on my Kindle plan, a 2022 novel called Creeper, and hadn’t really gotten into it, DNF’ing it about thirty or forty pages in. Just goes to show that I should pay more attention to authors’ names instead of book titles when I’m browsing, I guess.

Although I didn’t dislike The House on Rectory Lane overall, and indeed found it quite interesting enough to finish in one sitting, there was a quality about it that rubbed me the wrong way, and after I realized that this was the same writer as Creeper, something clicked in my head, and I figured out that it was exactly the same writing style that had caused me to abandon that former book. So my ambivalence toward The House on Rectory Lane was less a result of not enjoying the story, which again was pretty compelling if veering into farfetched toward the end, and more a dislike of the execution. I’ll try to articulate what I mean in a bit.

The novel—after a brief prologue describing a woman running terrified through a house, pursued by a camera-wielding attacker—follows a family consisting of dad Jake, mom Kate, and five-year-old son Sean. They live in the Camden district of London, and though the couple love many aspects of their big-city life, including the proximity of many pubs and social activities, and the ease of connecting with their friend group regularly, they’ve started to grow weary of the constant congestion, parking issues, and just general noise and overcrowding, and decide they want a quieter life out in the country, where their little boy can run around outside and they have a bit more privacy.

Sending their moving plans into overdrive is an incident that happens very near the beginning of the book, where Jake is threatened by a crazy dude with a knife during his morning commute to work. Now more convinced than ever that moving out of London is a fantastic idea, Jake and Kate purchase a seemingly perfect and somewhat secluded home out in the sticks, a house called The Rectory and situated on, you guessed it, Rectory Lane. There are a few other houses and a small, bustling village nearby, but all in all, The Rectory is very private, with its own automatic gate and woods all around.

So far, so good, but then, of course, weird shit starts happening that makes the family think that they have made a terrible mistake in moving out here. For example, a few random people in the village either warn Jake to get the fuck out of the house as soon as possible, or just go more subtle with it, like shaking their heads and saying, “good luck.” The estate agent, a slick and slightly sleazy fellow named Anton, tells them that the family who lived there before, the Prescotts, just up and disappeared one day, and no one’s heard from them since.

More ominous still, the nearest house to them, Rose Cottage, initially appears occupied, with a beautifully manicured lawn and a friendly dog outside, but then sometimes it looks like no one lives there. Jake gets curious about it, and as he’s out on a run one day sees through the window what looks like a man punching a woman in the face. He then sees this same guy looking for all the world like he’s burying a body in his back garden, but when Jake calls the police, they don’t find anything out there.

There are also their other neighbors, Pete and Laura, who are really friendly and welcoming, but also have a tendency to show up unannounced and want to hang out for hours. On top of that, the power goes out every now and then, and it seems like someone might be messing with their outdoor power box. After Kate sees a man lurking around out in the yard, Jake calls a local guy named Adam to get an alarm system installed, but the guy just shows up to do the work before Jake really made a solid appointment for him to do so. It’s all very odd.

There’s also the small matter of young women disappearing in and around the village, and Jake frequently feeling as though there’s a black Jeep following him wherever he goes. And as if all this wasn’t enough, Jake also comes across an old DVD in the attic that has home movies of a family that they presume are the Prescotts, and although the footage is normal at first, a scene at the very end shows what seems to be a terror-stricken woman running through The Rectory, being chased by someone holding the camera.

All of these bizarre events really do get the reader invested in the mystery, and I was actually absorbed enough in the plot to want to figure out what in the hell was going on. Because this is a thriller, I knew that there was probably a non-supernatural explanation for the shenanigans, and I must say, I did really like the idea of all of these incidents being connected somehow, or part of a larger conspiracy.

But as I said, the thing about the novel that sort of kept me from enjoying it as much as I normally would have was the writing style and the formatting issues. While there weren’t that many spelling errors, there were numerous grammatical ones, such as run-on sentences and so forth. There was also a really distracting tendency for the author to put different characters’ dialogue into the same paragraph, which really confused the issue sometimes as to who was speaking. On a related note, I’ve also never been a big fan of the British custom of using single quotes to enclose dialogue; I know that’s not the writer’s fault, because that’s just how they do it over there, but I much prefer the American method of enclosing dialogue in double quotes, as it stands out better from the rest of the text. In this book, there were, in addition, many instances where quote marks were left out altogether, making it unclear where the dialogue ended.

The characterization was also a bit flat and underwhelming; Jake was the most fleshed out, but his reactions and motivations were inconsistent, as he seemed kind of a fearful and non-confrontational dude at the start, but then acted like some big action badass at the end, somewhat out of nowhere. He also brought a lot of trouble on himself by going places where he probably shouldn’t have, and making some very unwise and sometimes downright mind-boggling decisions. His wife, Kate, didn’t seem fleshed out at all; the only impression I got of her was “hot” with long black hair.

The story jumps back and forth from the perspective of different characters, which is fine, but in one case, I felt as though this was kind of a cheat, because—without spoiling some of the plot twists toward the end­—many scenes had been told from the perspective of one character who ended up not being who you thought they were, which means the author withheld information from the reader for the sake of a twist, when if you were actually in that character’s head, you would have had more of an idea what was going on.

The two cop characters in the story were also mostly fine, but they talked to each other very expositionally, basically telling each other very rudimentary things about whatever investigation they were working on, when you’d think they’d know their jobs enough to not have to say those things to each other (and these were specifically characters that had been partners for a long time, per the story). Again, this is making the mistake of telling instead of showing; you’re putting unrealistic dialogue into the mouths of the characters in order to convey information to the reader. It just came off as very clunky to me. In fact, all of the actions of the police characters came across as written by someone who was just kinda repeating narration they’d heard on an Investigation Discovery show or something; the way the investigation progressed didn’t seem all that realistic either.

There was also a weird thing where there would be some big reveal or some big exciting event, and it would just be briefly described and wrapped up in like a couple sentences. Sometimes I’d have to go back and read it again to make sure I caught what happened, because I couldn’t believe such a significant development was given such short shrift. Toward the end, some very important set pieces that really would have added a lot of tension and stakes to the story were resolved way too easily, with minimal obstacles or danger. And the big twist toward the conclusion of the story was rather farfetched; not impossible, but not all that believable either, and again, it was just laid out really quickly and easily. The second big reveal at the very end was better and much more impactful, but I still couldn’t quite buy the whole scenario; there were just too many plot holes.

In general, the writing style of the thing sort of got on my nerves; the sentences were just rather terse, all of similar length and cadence, and relatively unadorned. Not that you have to pepper your writing with flowery language or paragraphs of description, but there is something to be said for painting a picture in the reader’s mind, and this novel didn’t really do that for me. The dialogue didn’t sound all that naturalistic either, and some of the conversations and action seemed like unnecessary filler.

On the whole, I did like the concept and the story of the book, and it did keep me in enough suspense that I was curious to see how it ended, but the writing style seemed kind of grating, and probably would have benefited from an editor (or a better editor, if it had one). Don’t get me wrong, this book does have loads of positive reviews on Goodreads and Amazon—way more positive than negative, in fact­—so obviously I was in the minority with just finding it sort of okay, mostly due to the style issues I’ve tried to articulate; I’m perfectly willing to concede that it might be just me and my own idiosyncrasies. If you’re into thrillers, you might really dig it, because a lot of people did, but I found it simply middle-of-the-road, and written in a manner that kind of irritated me, sorry to say. If you’ve read it or other books by the same author, let me know what you thought, because I’m really curious about how different people might have perceived this one.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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